Niagara Trip (long, boring)

I’m finally getting around to posting my impressions of my recent July visit to Niagara. In general, I think Chardonnay, Gewurz, and Reisling have come a long way in this area. However, I do find that wineries are still experimenting (maybe a bit too much). One of the most impressive wineries I visited (Hidden Bench) made an excellent Chardonnay and extremely unripe meritage. The woman serving the wine insisted they were eventually turning to producing entirely red (sangiovese??). I just don’t understand why they don’t stick to what they can do well, rather than what makes them different or what sells to the tourists. I didn’t find many QPR’s to be sure; prices are a bit inflated for what youy get.

Hidden Bench Winery
The Estate Chardonnay was one of my favorites of the day. Hopefully they stick to making whites, since they do this fairly well.

2007 Roman’s Block Reisling
Pear, citrus on the nose. Some mineral, but not as much as the winery would like you to believe. Great acidity and very nice length. There was just something missing mid-palate.

2006 Estate Chardonnay
Spends 11 months in french oak. The oak is not overwhelming, although it does mute the flavors a bit. Nice touch of better on the end. I quite liked this one.

2006 Terrior Cache
Green on the nose. Good acidity, but limited fruit and extremely soft tannins. Not convinced this one is ripe.

Really wasn’t impressed with any of these wines.

2007 Chardonnay
Muted nose; seems as if this has been served too cold. Seems to have nice acidity, but very little fruit showing through. Little length to speak of.

2006 Moire Chardonnay
I believe they market this as their premium wine. Extreme oak dominating the nose. Butterscotch, apricot and strong toast on the palate. Still not a buyer.

2006 Pinot Noir
Artificial candy flavoring on the nose (cherry-like). The color is quite light, almost orange rather than pink/red. Suprisingly strong tannins, with a little gamey funk on the finish. Again, limited fruit. Eh…

2007 Gamay
Surprising good structure, but again limited nose. Spice and a bit of dark cherry dominate, and the tannins I recall as being quite harsh. My favorite of the bunch.

Tawse Winery
Despite some strong recommendations, I wasn’t really taken with any of these wines. I thought they were overdone, and trying to be something they weren’t.

2007 Scetches of Niagara (Oaked)
Oak dominates. Not much fruit to speak of. I get just a little pear on the nose, but not much else.

2006 Robyn’s Block Chardonnay
This is their premium wine. Strong toast, oak concentrated on the nose and palate. This oak is more integrated than the Scetches, but still very dominate. Decent finish. Not a buyer.

2007 Pinot Noir
Not much on the nose here. The wine is very drinkable, with nice soft tannins. Not much distinction though.

Kacaba Vineyards
Wow, not sure what I can say about this one. Red dominates their portfolio, and every one of them was unripe. The people serving the wine really really stressed the importance of quality in their vineyard and cellar. If this is the truth, I can imagine they may make something nice if they focused on varietals they could ripen.

2006 Chardonnay
Oak. Very little nose, but oak. Nothing but toast on the palate.

2007 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay
Nose of pears; finish is soft and creamy. Don’t recall much else.

2004 Syrah Reserve
I asked if 2004 was a tough vintage. The man replied (the winemaker, I eventually realized) that it was no more difficult than any other vintage. My notes simply say green, green, green. Green on the nose. If this is the reserve, I don’t want to taste the unreserve.

2004 Cabernet Franc
Green again. Just unripe with harsh tannins – although I do get a bit of smoke in there.

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
Green peppers. I hate green peppers. There is a nice spice, and a bit of dark fruit on the palate, but the tannins are rough and the green dominates.

Flat Rock Cellars
Fairly impressed overall with this winery. It’s a bit more commerical than other spots around here, but the tasting experience was fun and informative.

2006 Estate Reisling
Nice balance of sweetness and acidity. Light fruit (pear, etc), and decent length.

2007 Unplugged Chardonnay (unaoked)
Floral, creamy, and nice length. Seems like good value.

2007 Pinot Noir
Little green on the nose. I get light hints of smoke and cherry, but it’s fairly muted right now.

2005 Reserve Pinot Noir
Starting to brick, a bit lighter than the 2007. Definitely more on the nose, light cherry and a nice finish.

2006 Rusty Shed Chardonnay
Very nice. Light oak on this one, with pear dominating the nose. Citrus and butterscotch throughout the palate, generally mid finish.

2006 Red Twisted
Definitely an interesting wine. This is a pinot/syrah/chardonnay blend. All three varietals are evident, although it’s got a disappointing finish. Still, for the price I think this is a decent summer wine.

Daniel Lenko
I don’t recall much from Daniel’s stop. He is an interesting, eccentric person to be sure. I really did not have time to take notes, as the bottles were flying at me left, right, and centre. He opened everything on his list. Seems like a very generous person; he definitely doesn’t care about what people think of his storefront. It’s a working farm with rubber boots intact. His father is a bit hard of hearing, so don’t mind the yelling. Here is what I think I tasted:

2007 Unoaked Chardonnay (same as Unoaked Chardonngay)
Simple if I remember correctly.

2007 Reserve Reisling
Don’t recall this one.

2004 Old Vines Chardonnay (American Oak)
Bought one of these and drank it in my hotel room. Very nice, not too heavily oaked.

2004 Old Vines Chardonnay (French Oak)
Despite the heavy oak influence here, I bought two. Haven’t tasted them yet, but I think they were good.

2008 White Cabernet
He said this is his best seller, and I can actually see why. I thought this was a great rose – simple and to the point.

2005 Meritage
I recall this being a bit unripe.

That’s it! I’ll be in the Okanagan next week, and I’m sure I’ll have better luck with the reds there.

Thanks Dana,
I am actually hoping to get the time off to do a Niagara trip myself soon. so this information will help me. do you live in the US? if so, how much wine could you bring back through customs?

Hi Mike. I actually live in Calgary, so didn’t have to worry about US customs. I’ve heard you can take as much as you can carry if flying…just don’t try doing that coming the other way.

Dana, thanks for the notes. I used to visit Niagara every few months when I lived in the area, and still follow the region with interest.

Not sure who is making recommendations on which wineries to visit but other than Lenko these wouldn’t have been my choices.

Speaking of Lenko, I am very surprised that he is still selling 2004’s. In the past, I have really enjoyed his wines, and have loved visiting. A real family operation. But he grew to be very agressive on his pricing (1 case minimums on some wines), and I am almost happy to see that it may be paying off for him in a backlog of inventories. Maybe he will back off somewhat.

Red Bordeaux varieties have a very hard time ripening in the region, all will have some greeness, especially if you are used to new word ripeness. For reds, I wish the region would stick to Pinot Noir, and Gamay. Among the Bordeaux varieties, I have experienced good wine from Merlot, but vintage variation is key.

I am surprised that you did not comment on any late harvest or ice wines. Ontario really shines in these. Yes, there are silly priced examples of curiosities such as cabernet sauv icewine, but there are some fabulous, world class desert wines that are labelled select late harvest, or special select late harvest. I don’t think that there is any legal standing to these terms, but generally quality does go up from late harvest, to select late harvest, to special select late harvest.

Beware that some wineries make their late harvest wines from the left overs after frozen grapes are pressed for their ice wine. Wineries are usually upfront about this if you can find someone knowledgeable to ask. The best examples of these desert wines are either Vidal or Riesling, and are purposely left on the vines to shrivel and make delicious necter. Some wineries even make Botrytis wines as well (e.g. Henry of Pelham). These are typically priced at around $20 per 375ml. Lenko makes some very good desert wines, too bad you either didn’t taste them, maybe they are just not your style.

Probably the best tour I ever had around the area is when I decided to completely forego tasting any dry wines, and just went from winery to winery tasting their desert wines. Amazing how you can hit 10-15 wineries in one day, when you are only tasting 2-3 wines at each stop! But OMG, you get your fill of sugar!!!

As for must see wineries, my next visit would include Clos Jordanne. I have never tasted a bottle, but their reviews seem all positive. Other favorites of mine are Thirty Bench, 13th Street, Henry of Pelham, and Mountain View for their excellent Kocsis Vineyard Chardonnay.

Thanks for the reply Errol. I certainly have limited experience in Canadian wines, as I’m still finding them overpriced. Most of the wines I tasted above were in the $20 - $40 price range, with a few exceptions on the higher end. I actually did quite a bit of research on various wine boards to get some feedback on the wineries to hit. I also would have liked to visit a couple of the ones you noted, but I only had 4 hours before my conference so I did as much as possible.

With respect to icewine, I generally avoid it. I like dessert wine, just not a lot of CDN icewines.


Dana, I find the icewines a bit overwhelming as well. If you see a select late harvest, or the special select in Calgary, I would recommend trying a bottle. They are at least half the price of an icewine, and competitive price-wise with international desert wines. Otherwise, I completely agree on pricing. The top level of Ontario wines are $25+ (sometimes ++!), and they are not QPR competitive. But generally they seem to sell through as there is a great tourist trade.

Your post did give me a thirst to return to Niagara for another tasting!

Hi Dana…Bob here in Edmonton! I am a member of the Calgary Field Naturalists Soc and do bird surveys in Brooks, Milk River and Crowsnest Pass.

I might have been the one to recommend Flat Rock as I love the wines and philosophy. I agree that the substitutions you listed are great places as well but I’m curious as to why you would not recommend Flat Rock?

One of the best bargains of our last trip to Niagara was Daniel Lenko’s Late Harvest Vidal, at about $12 it was a steal compared to others and equally good, probably better balanced.

We also tried diligently to visit Clos Jordanne, but couldn’t ever even get anyone to answer the phone.

Mike M - We brought 5 cases home, driving only, declared at Customs, just passed right on through. Not sure what the real rules are though, should a Customs agent decide to follow them.

Other than Lenko and Flat rock, you certainly did not visit what I would consider ot be the top wineries and top wines of the regions. I guess I am not all that surprised that you were not all that impressed. There are so many greats that you were missing. next time you go, let me know and I can steer you to some better wineries.

I have had 90 white wines in Ontairon, and 95 point dessert wines, with some hopes that a 96-100 point dessert wine will be made soon.
The best reds I have had have been in the 88-89 point range. having said that, I easily think that someone should be able to produce a 90-95 pointer soon, if they haven’t already and I missed it.

Buy whatever you want, so long as it is for personal use. Put it in your trunk, but be honest and tell them that you have ‘some wine’. If they ask, tell them how much. Be honest.

There is a charge for bringing in more than 2 bottles. However, the charge is something like a few cents a bottle. So little that 99% of the agents will wave you through because it is a horrible pain to go through all that effort to collect a dollar or two.

thanks bob,
i dont have a problem paying customs if it is that small. i was just worried that it would be a lot higher.

the only problem with customs is that you need exact change. it is not the price.

We have only been stopped once in the 12 years we have been going there and buying wine. The guy was an idiot, and in the Customs office they hated him for sending all of the people through. he said that they prefer when the wave them on through anyway. Well, because we had a case and ahlaf of wine too many we had to pay duty. How much was it?

93 cents. That’s right. 93 cents. And it has to be exact change. You just can’t hand them a dollar and walk away. I normally have change in the car, but we had no pennies. We were lifting up the car mats looking for 3 fucking pennies, and eventually had to beg for some in the parking lot. [oops.gif]

haha that sucks!

i usually keep some change in my car so i should be alright, but thanks for the heads up. you cant just hand him a dollar and tell him to keep the change?

i assume i wont be buying too many bottles since the dessert wines are so pricey, but i usually buy a case or so every time i visit the finger lakes, assume i would get about that much.

you need our passport too right?

Yep, passaportos are required nowadays.

Thanks for the feedback Bob. I was in Niagara on the Lake for a conference, so only had a couple hours of racing around and tasting. what are a couple of your favorites in the area? I stuck entirely to the Bench - I like the feel of the smaller places, at the expense of quality in this case I guess.

I’m in the Okanagan now, about to head out tasting for the day. The reds are so far much more promising here (at least on the east bank).


If you are on the bench, there are some good places, but they can be hit or miss.
Reif actually makes one of the best vidal icewines in the area.
Pilliterri once made one of the best Cab Franc icewines I have ever had, but since then I have been dissappointed.
Joseph always makes solid Icewines, occasionally great, and you’ll find some good, mid-80’s scoring white wines.
Mary Neissan has sometimes made the best reds on the bench. Low to mid 80’s scorering, and the fall apart quickly.
Caroyln makes a Marichal Foch that is a nice expression of this unique hybrid. A good 80 point pizza wine.
Trius is the high end label for Peller, and can make some palatable wines, mid 80’s or so. The 98 Vidal was one of the best of that varietal I have ever had. there is a tasting room downtown NOTL.
Inniskillin has made a syrah that is outstanding, but they make so little of it you have to ask for it, or know somebody to get it.

On the escarpment is where some good stuff can happen:

Henry of Pelham is one of the top dessert wine makers in North America. I have had 95 point examples from them. They are my fave!! they also make 90 point white table wines. They have good baco noir if you are into that grape (I am not). Their neighbor (their name escapes me) is the only other winery in their microclimate and also makes good Icewines.

Flat Rock: you were there, and they will hit 90 points on a pinot someday.

30 bench: their reislings are low 90’s scoring at a minimum.

Penisula Ridge has made outstanding syrahs and other reds, but not lately. Hopefully the new stuff is back to form.

Wayne Gretzky, believe it or not, makes mid to high 80 point reds of a drink now style.

I am doing all of this off the top of my head, so I apologize because I am missing a couple.